Friday, May 17, 2013

My Kind of Town - Chicago Culinary Highlights

Chicago's Navy Pier, Photo: NK
This past weekend a family wedding brought us to Chicago for the second time in as many years. Now I'm not easy to impress, but I really like this town. 

Chicago's amazing architecture and dramatic lakeside setting are pretty breathtaking, and on both visits, I was surprised by how much this hard-nosed New Yorker enjoyed that fabled Midwestern charm from the locals. 

Our trip was both busy and fun. First, we attended our cousin's very lovely wedding, after which we were lucky enough to have some time to link up with two sets of friends from town.

From the wedding cocktail hour - where the most adorable Mini Mac 'n Cheeses were served -
Creative Cocktail Mac 'n Cheese, Photo:NK


to an uber-popular local restaurant's house made made Pork Rinds, 

My Main Squeeze and NK's resident Pork Connoisseur, Photo: NK


 we made sure to eat our way 
 through the Windy City 

  but good. 

In particular, we visited two really good restaurants that I'd like to tell you about.
Oh, and at least one bar. There's always a bar.  


Meal: Brunch
Cuisine: New American/ Gastropub Fare 
Location: Chicago's Meatpacking District (apparently they have one too!)  
What we ate: Let me preface this by saying there were four of us :)
1/2 Dozen Oysters - all different varieties!
Side of Ramp Hash Browns
Pretzel with Pimiento Cheese
Smoked Arctic Char with Feta Yogurt
Pork Schnitzel
Soft Shell Crab Sandwich
Several Fantastic Bloody Mary's + Beer Backs and a side of Pork Rinds

Overall Thoughts: The Publican is super popular for a reason. It's pretty delicious and the menu is definitely appealing to the tasteful omnivore. Try an exceptionally flavorful Bloody Mary with a Beer Back ( a complimentary beer pairing that comes with the drink - I learned this is a midwestern thing- good idea guys, good idea). Pork Rinds were a fun novelty, and Publican's Oysters on the half shell were super fresh. All of our entrees were great and really well executed, and the atmosphere is boisterous and fun.
Reservations recommended. 

Special thanks to Marina and David for showing us a great time! 

*On the remote chance you are still hungry, you can visit Publican Quality Meats, an upscale butcher right next door that offers a cafe too. Both places were good enough for Bourdain, so of course, they're good enough for me - check out clips of Tony's visit to the Publican locations HERE.

Next up, our second set of amazing foodie friends took us out that same evening to a great place called:

Meal: Dinner
Cuisine: Farm to Table/American
Location: Bucktown

What we ate: Again, we were a party of four - which was handy because The Bristol's menu is best enjoyed family style. Happily, the portions are neither overly priced or unmanageably huge as can sometimes be the case with this dining format. Since I love variety, it was fun to order several starters and entrees and share them all. Note that their menu changes frequently, but here goes:

Apple Salad with Manchego and Hazelnuts
Head-on Prawns a la Plancha
Pork Loin Tonnato
Duck Fat Fries with Garlic Aioli
Raviolo with Ricotta, Egg Yolk and Brown Butter
Cavatelli Bolognese
Roasted Half Chicken with Dill Spaetzle
Pork Porterhouse with Dried Cherry and Guanciale
Basque Cake 

Overall Thoughts: The folks at The Bristol mix a really good drink and offer a variety of creative cocktails. They're the perfect thing to wet your appetite for some wonderful food. There was no dish that I didn't enjoy, but the Chicken did not quite live up to the waiter's hype. The Duck Fat Fries were insanely good. The Giant Raviolo with a runny egg inside was yummy and rich. The waiter recommended we order their famous Monkey Bread to sop of the Egg (this was a *brilliant* idea). The Bristol's food is visually beautiful.The Pork Loin Tonnato starter, Cavatelli Bolognese, and the Pork Porterhouse were standouts for me. Delicious, delicious. Now, I would have liked to have taken more pictures of our dishes but the place is cozy and moodily lit. I didn't want to be "that guy" with the obnoxious flash. The staff is extremely attentive and knowledgeable. In contrast to the folks at Publican (where there's a touch of the toocoolforschool/blase/hipster vibe), they are also exceptionally warm and friendly.  To finish, we ordered the Basque Cake on the server's recommendation. I have to say, it was one of the richest and most satisfyingly delicious desserts I've had in a long time. Imagine a light and fluffy pound cake that's been soaked in buttery goodness, and I mean that in the best possible way. One of these cakes was plenty of dessert for four. We had a great meal and enjoyed wonderful company all day. 

Finally, an honorable mention goes to a new-ish Small Plates Lunch + Dinner locale where we cooled our heels and enjoyed some well-crafted cocktails pre-dinner. The Red Door in Bucktown has been open just over a year and it's adorable. Though I can't vouch for the food as we only had drinks there, we all enjoyed several very good cocktails and a comprehensive beer and wine selection. The bar area was friendly and welcoming, and the dark wooded, edison-bulbed ambiance was enhanced by a friendly mixologist who chatted us up.

Photo by Tommie Nguyen courtesy of The Red Door
Check the place out if you're in the nabe!

This concludes our Culinary recap of Chi-Town. Special thanks to our foodie friends and family for a great, Windy City weekend. Tune in next week for a Chicago-inspired recipe - can you guess which classic we'll be cooking up?
Until next time!

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